One brushstroke at a time, "The Johnny Cash Project" is gathering illustrations submitted by fans online into a living portrait of the country music legend.
The project is a unique Web-only music video where every frame is a fan-created drawing. Directed by Chris Milk, it's set to Cash's "Ain't No Grave," the title track from the posthumous album released earlier this year.
Work on the project — a complex mix of software design and editing — began last September. The website launched in March. After more than 250,000 submissions, a broadcast version of the video has been released for TV stations and eligibility for 2010 Grammy nominations.
For Milk, who has directed videos for Kanye West and Gnarls Barkley, the project is a "living memorial" that befits the song. In it, Cash sings, "There ain't no grave gonna hold my body down."
"He's singing about the eternal life of his spirit, and the way his spirit lives on is through all of his collective fans," says Milk. "This project becomes a physical manifestation of his fans' love."
The genesis of the video started when Milk met Aaron Koblin, an artist and programmer who specializes in data visualization. The two began thinking of new, crowd-sourced music videos, and when producer Rick Rubin was looking for a video for "Ain't No Grave," it seemed a good fit.
The website, Milk says, has received hundreds of thousands of visitors. That traffic still pales in comparison with "The Wilderness Downtown," the similarly Internet-based music video that Milk and Koblin collaborated on following "The Johnny Cash Project."
"The Wilderness Downtown" used HTML5 programming and Google Maps to create startling individualized videos to the Arcade Fire song "We Used to Wait." The interactive video was a sensation, leading to 35 million hits and 5 million unique visitors.
Though the response hasn't been as considerable for "Ain't No Grave," Milk hopes the broadcast release will attract more attention. Lou Robin, Cash's longtime manager who handles business affairs for the Johnny Cash Estate, said the Cash Estate was pleased with the video as a memorial.
There are numerous versions, including edits that gather the most realistic illustrations, the most abstract drawings and the highest-rated frames. Each frame is labeled with the artist, and all contributors are listed in the credits.
To contribute, fans are given the choice of a handful of numbered frames to use as a template. When strung together in the proper order, they appear as a moving image. The broadcast edit is introduced by those who submitted drawings, talking about their illustrations and their memories of Cash.
"The level of artistry that some people have invested into their drawings is staggering," says Milk.
The website, www.thejohnnycashproject.com, updates twice a day to incorporate the new drawings. Milk hopes it will be an "eternal thing" that will continue to regenerate.
"Unfortunately, there will be an external server and bandwidth bill that goes along with it and eventually someone will stop paying that," says Milk. "But it's up for the immediate future."